Driven: 2012 Mercedes-Benz ML350 BlueTec

By Seyth Miersma

July 26, 2011

  —Missoula, Montana

We actually still have to pay the speeding ticket. That thought just occurred to us as we were putting on the finishing touches to this, our review of the all-new Mercedes-Benz ML350, and fondly remembering the storm-surge-like torque from the 3.0-liter BlueTec diesel-engined version. Delivering an unrepentant 455 pound-feet of torque up for the asking, it’s easy to understand how we found ourselves just a little bit north of the posted 75-mile-per-hour limit, through Anaconda Deer-Lodge County on the back end of our test drive. Considering that we were actually slowing down when the officer nailed us, that the limit was pretty high to begin with, and that Mercedes had enough foresight to hold its launch event in the laidback state of Montana (getting busted only cost us forty bucks), we feel lucky. Again.
We also feel pretty happy for the sure-to-be-copious numbers of buyers that will end up in this ML350—especially those that are trading in their last-generation MLs for the new one. For, while the second-gen SUV was comfortable, good looking, and relatively luxurious, it couldn’t hold a candle to this new third-generation ML in any dynamic sense. Nor, certainly, from the standpoint of overall refinement and comfort while driving or riding in the thing.
From our first grasp and turn of the steering wheel, we found the ‘12 ML to be a better steer than the SUV it replaces. That steering wheel is now electro-mechanically controlled—the old car made use of a hydraulic pump—and is able to offer what we consider to be proper weighting for an SUV at any road speed. That means that effort is feather-light in the Crate & Barrel parking lot (we occasionally need to restock our throw pillows—what of it?), and pleasantly weighty when doing a baker’s dozen over the posted limit outside of Butte. Feel from the road is still almost entirely filtered out of the experience, of course. And, while we’ve never been big fans of the half-wood treatment that’s a favorite of M-B steering wheel designers, we’ve also heard enough praise for the lavish application of fine wood and leathers to understand that we’re in the minority there.
Frankly, if you’re shopping for a luxury SUV, you’re going to love the cabin of this ML. Rivals BMW and Audi take a much more modern, and sleeker approach to interior decorating, but no one other automaker can replicate the wealth-and-good-breeding taste that Mercedes is able to bring consistently. Every touch point is constructed from either wood, or leather, or real metal. The seating surfaces are massively comfortable without being squishy, and offer a huge range of adjustability. Gauges are clear and bright, buttons are deployed sparingly and logically, and the new version of the Command one-controller infotainment system is a breeze to understand right away. Cross-shoppers will potentially feel a bit wounded by the lower-tech display options available via the centrally mounted display, but the M-B navigation system is still simple to interact with, even if it’s much less flashy than its X5 equivalent (for instance).
While underway, when we chose to turn down the excellent Harman/Kardon surround sound system, the ML’s sonic profile is low. Engine roar from the meaty diesel intrudes only ever so slightly, and only when you’ve throttled all the way down. Wind rush off of the large side-view mirrors is louder than would be found in, say, an S-Class, but it hardly registers in the larger world of NVH. On that front, and when pointed dead ahead, especially, the utterly calm ride is downright relaxing—even at speeds that will get you pinched. Being that the last ML offered somewhat sketchy high-speed stability in our last few encounters with it, we were happy to find that this model had rectified the problem.
Mercedes engineers have put a lot of time and effort into how the ML350 performs when asked to go around some corners, too, and with respectable results. When optioned up with the Airmatic air suspension, this ML gets an active suspension that helps to keep that big body from leaning too much in spirited driving. Further, the ML offers new “split” stabilizer bars—essentially front and rear bars that have been split in the center, and reconnected with hydraulic actuators. The advantage here is a ride that is more comfortable and conforming when traveling in a straight line, that then has the ability to selectively stiffen when lateral forces are sensed. We were a bit dubious about the system when we first heard it explained, but the resultant ride really does blend compliant and sportier characters rather seamlessly when on the go. We never felt the bars “switching” from opened to closed, and didn’t notice any unwanted behavior when pushing the SUV on riverside roads.
With all of that digested, and even allowing for use of the Sport mode, the ML doesn’t feel as athletic when run hard as do cars like the X5, or even Acura’s MDX. Part of this is down to engineering intent—BMW and Acura have “sport” reputations to maintain—and part of it comes from Mercedes-Benz understanding its audience here. There will be AMG-tuned MLs for those who’re really hunting giant performance for their SUV, but the stock and trade for this model is comfortable luxury.
And don’t forget about the BlueTec motor, either. It may be a quiet, low-revving, evolution of the same 3.0-liter diesel that you’ve driven or read about before, but the truth is that it’s an ass-kicking powerplant. Of course the diesel ML offers better fuel economy (20/25 mpg versus 17/22 for the gasoline V-6), and more torque (455 instead of 273 pound-feet), but we were truly excited to find out that the price difference between the two is only now about $1500. Unless the cost of diesel fuel starts to soar again, that’s a good investment in our book—or just an inexpensive “performance model” if you want to take a different approach.
For those who might actually need to make regular use of the ML as an all-wheels-driven SUV, there might be good reason to hold off on making a purchase for another half-year or so. That’s when M-B will make available its new “On & Off Road” package for the car, which uses a range of six transmission modes to fully optimize driving in adverse conditions. There’ll be a fully automatic mode in which the vehicle sorts the trail out for itself, light and challenging off-road settings, and winter, sport, and towing modes to round out the tech. That package also comes with a skid plate, a two-stage transfer case, and a longitudinal diff lock. All great adds for those who regularly turn warrior on the weekend (or just live in the treacherous parts of the world).
$40 speeding ticket notwithstanding, we can’t find enough good to say about this reborn ML for those who prioritize luxury. That the new SUV is dynamically superior to its forbearer is a bonus, for sure, but the real wins are the added style and grace that can be had relative to the outgoing vehicle (and for the same amount of money, we hasten to add).
VS: BMW X5 xDrive35d
The Bimmer diesel SUV is really in lock-step with the new ML from almost every angle: the X5 has more horsepower but less torque, better highway mpg but worse in the city, the acceleration is a bit better but the refinement isn’t quite as good. You get the idea. Mostly this choice will be made by a buyer’s gut feeling about the exterior/interior styling of the two. We think, honestly, that the ML is going to be nicer to live with on a daily basis, but the X5 a good bit more entertaining to drive. It’s a hard call that M-B has made even tougher with the launch of its excellent new M-Class.
VS: Audi Q7 TDI

While diesel versions of the X5 and the new ML are really neck-and-neck, it’s easier for us to dismiss the Q7 TDI. Sure, the Audi is still and impressive vehicle, and it looks damn good, but it just doesn’t feel as able as either of its German blood-rivals. The Q7 simply feels bigger on the road, with too-light steering and relatively poor visibility really hampering it in this comparison. It has less horsepower, less torque, and a harsher ride than the ML, too.
2012 Mercedes-Benz ML350 BlueTec 4Matic
Engine: V-6, 3.0 liters, 24v
Output: 240 hp/455 lb-ft
0-60 MPH: 7.3 (est)
Fuel Economy, City/Hwy: 20/25 mpg
Base Price: $51,365
On Sale: September 2011